Imperial Satellite 127 toy camera photos and review

Imperial Satellite 127
The Imperial Satellite 127 Mark I has a big, round, shiny reflector on the detachable, top-mounted flash unit. Mine was new in box. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Imperial Satellite 127 was produced in two versions and several varieties beginning in 1961 by the Herbert George Camera Company of Chicago.

It’s the only 127 format Herbert George camera in my collection, and it’s probably the cheapest, too. It was offered for 39.75 French francs in 1963, and at the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank’s 1963 exchange rate that was about U.S. $8.05, or about $62.50 in 2014 dollars.

Frankly, it was grossly overpriced.

Satellite 127 Sonic
A carhop serves food to a guest at a Sonic restaurant in Denver. Incredibly wavy courtesy of unflat film during exposure. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Specs

The Satellite 127 takes, unsurprisingly, 127 roll film. 127 film is getting exceedingly difficult to find, and what is still out there is insanely expensive. It makes 4x4cm square frames and you can get 12 on a roll.

A cheap, plastic lens, a 1/50s snapshot shutter and a two-setting aperture round out the Satellite 127’s unimpressive feature set. Oh yeah, it has a flash.

The flash is the big difference between the Mark I and the Mark II models — the Mark I has the big round reflector dish seen above; the Mark II has a more space-age molded plastic reflector that looks much more square.

The Satellite 127 II also has a fancy decorative chrome trim ring around the lens, which appears to stylishly compliment the polished metal faceplate and its Raygun Gothic screen printing.

Satellite 127 observatory 1
The University of Denver’s historic Chamberlain Observatory was built in 1890, and is named for a real estate magnate who pledged $50,000 to fund the facility. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The two-setting aperture is labelled “Color” and “B&W,” which correspond to two slightly different apertures. The Color setting is slightly larger than the B&W setting, presumably because color film was generally slower than black and white at the time.

Among the many varieties were different colors, multicolored models, and even some “Mercury Satellite”-branded examples produced as a promotion for Mercury automobiles.

Satellite 127 observatory 2
Denver’s Chamberlain Observatory was built in Observatory Park, which was dedicated in 1886 with the idea of creating an elite neighborhood around the University of Denver. (Daniel J. Schneider)

As you can see, especially in the first few images, the Satellite 127 doesn’t have much of a film path. The film was obviously rather distorted as the images were made, and I guess I’m not alone in finding this out.

In addition to the amazingly wavy negatives, which did seem to get a bit better later in the roll, the Satellite 127 has a couple fantastic light leaks around the top of the removable back. Mine actually appears to have significantly less leakage than some other examples.

Satellite 127 reading
You can hardly see the man reading in the spring sunlight in Observatory Park in Denver, but the contrast of the Rollei Retro 80S film is stunning. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Test

I used Rollei Retro 80S film for my test roll. I bought it to try it out as an alternative to the Efke 127 film I’ve used in the past, but I guess I waited too long to actually try it because it’s already been discontinued.

It’s a shame, too — the Retro 80S is a lot smoother-grained than the Efke and has fantastic contrast. I developed these example shots in HC110 at 1+63 dilution and did virtually no touchup to the scans aside from dust removal. Only complaint would be that the contrast is so high, especially as a result of the film’s extreme red sensitivity, that there is little-to-no shadow detail.

Satellite 127 observatory 3
The University of Denver’s Chamberlain Observatory houses the school’s prized 1894 Alvan Clark-Saegmuller 20-inch refracting telescope. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The resulting test images, though, came out pretty well for a few shots made on the way to the lab to pick up some film from my FM2s.

As with virtually all of my toy cameras’ lenses, the focus gets soft outside the center. It’s actually not as bad as some of my others, though. It’s probably most comparable to the Plastic Filmtastic 120 Debonair toy camera I reviewed last week than to other Herbert George cameras I’ve reviewed. Well, maybe it’s kind of in-between.

Particularly noticeable, though, is how absent vignetting is in these example shots. Not that there isn’t any, but it’s very minor and unobtrusive.

Satellite 127 alleyway
The alley behind Englewood’s Hill-Top Motel has never been paved. With ruts and mud puddles, and decaying buildings on both sides, it seems like a relic of a bygone age. (Daniel J. Schneider)

It’s entirely possible that the lack of a flat film plane affects the sharpness at the edges, too.

The Satellite 127 is comparable to the Plastic Filmtastic 120 Debonair in another way, as well — you can shoot “sprockets” with it.

The process is somewhat more complicated, but honestly sounds kind of fun. I think it also would be a lot cheaper than buying actual 127 film, at least once you have a couple 127 spools saved up. Maurício Sapata explains the complex process he developed on his blog.

Satellite 127 Hill-Top Motel
Englewood’s Hill-Top Motel was built in 1942 and operated as a hotel, and later apartments, until 2006. It has been all-but-abandoned since. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Experience

The Satellite 127 isn’t made of Bakelite, much to its detriment. It’s some cheaper, more modern plastic. The molding also was done quickly and poorly, leaving jagged edges and bits of sprue hanging out all over.

Upside: It’s small and super lightweight, especially given that the smaller film requires less depth in the body. Downside: It feels cheap. Really cheap. It feels almost as cheap as the Debonair.

The back/bottom is removed by means of a plastic latch in the middle of the back, which feels so delicate I was scared I would break it when it didn’t unlock with light pressure.

Satellite 127 alley apartments
A 1960s apartment building backs up to this short stretch of alley by Englewood Camera in Englewood, Colorado. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The film advance knob is on the bottom of the camera, which is less common but perfectly fine. I did, however, find it rather difficult to use with my big fingers. Not impossible, but not easy.

The Color/B&W switch is somewhat difficult to “lock” into either setting and mine tends to wind up in the middle of the two if I’m not forceful with it. Along with the latch, I wonder if the tolerances weren’t just designed to start out tight in anticipation of the Satellite 127 loosening up quickly with use.

The viewfinder is surprisingly accurate compared to my other Herbert George cameras (Imperial Herco 620, Imperial Debonair). The photos are framed very close to what I saw through the viewfinder, though rather than the image having tolerance for error by covering more than the viewfinder indicated, this seems to err toward capturing about 95% of the middle of what you see.

Looking at the Hill-Top Motel photo, above — when I made that, I thought I would just barely get the full corner of the building to the left. I got the glass-block window in the rounded corner, but not quite the rest of the way around.

Satellite 127 Little Dry Creek
A young girl plays in Little Dry Creek where it and its small greenbelt parallel Hampden Avenue and cross Broadway in Englewood. (Daniel J. Schneider)

I love the retro-futurist styling of this camera, and I got mine brand new in the box with instructions and warranty card, etc., so it’s in great shape. I found it at a thrift store in Littleton, Colo., for something like $8. I probably overpaid.

It looks good on my camera wall, though, so it will probably stay just there. Or I suppose I could make a night light out of it…

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Imperial Satellite 127 camera
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